Little Harbor purchase to be decided Tuesday at Town Meeting
The fate of the Little Harbor golf course will be in the hands of Town Meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 22, as voters convene to decide whether the town should buy the 54-acre golf course and spend Community Preservation funds to do it.
Officials have negotiated a $2.6 million price for the sale and related costs, and are asking voters to approve the use of $2 million in Community Preservation money to fund the bulk of the purchase — a move that would require the permanent preservation of the land as open space.
Officials have pitched the purchase as a way to maintain the Little Harbor golf course as a community amenity while protecting the land in perpetuity from further development.
The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the Wareham High School gym at 7 Viking Dr. Masks are required, and officials will be handing out masks for those who need them. No food or beverages other than water will be allowed. Political signs are prohibited. Town Moderator Claire Smith has asked voters to arrive early to allow time to sign in so the meeting can begin on time.
The golf course’s future has been the subject of debate for months. As the owners sought to sell the facility and retire, they were unable to find a buyer who wanted to continue to operate the course. An initial sale agreement was reached with Mass Audubon in 2021.
However, the conservation group’s plans to restore what are now golf greens to their original state as salt marsh and forest ran into a barrage of opposition from golfers and town officials who value the course as a recreational facility. In August 2021, Mass Audubon backed out of the plan.
Then, town officials began exploring what it would take to purchase the property. On Tuesday, voters will make the final decision.
Here are answers to some key questions voters may be considering:
Why does the town want to purchase Little Harbor?
Purchasing Little Harbor using Community Preservation funds would enable the town to keep the golf course open and ensure that the land won’t be used for development in the future.
Select Board Chair Judith Whiteside has described the purchase as “54 acres of open space that happens to have a golf course on it.”
What are Community Preservation funds?
Community Preservation funds are collected using a 3 percent surcharge on property taxes and supplemented by the state. Those funds can only be used for certain purposes: open space and outdoor recreation, affordable housing and historic preservation.
If voters approve the use of $2 million in Community Preservation funds, $1 million would come from funds the town has already collected. The remaining $1 million would be bonded and paid back over time using Community Preservation funds.
The use of Community Preservation funds would not change the tax rate. It would require the town to put a conservation restriction on the land.
What is a conservation restriction?
A conservation restriction is a legally binding agreement that bars development and other activities on a parcel of land. In this case, a conservation restriction would be written to allow the golf course to continue to operate within its current bounds. But once the golf course ceases to operate, the land would become protected open space. The town has been in talks with the Wareham Land Trust, who would hold the restriction. That means the Trust would be responsible for monitoring and protecting the land.
What if voters don’t approve the use of Community Preservation funds?
If voters approve the purchase of Little Harbor but not the use of Community Preservation funds, the Select Board and Town Administrator would need to decide how to fund the purchase, Whiteside told Wareham Week. Town officials would be left to figure out how to pay for the debt service to buy the course at a cost of about $250,000 each year, Whiteside said. That cost would likely mean cuts to other town services.
If Community Preservation funds are not used, then the town is under no obligation to put a conservation restriction on the land. Select Board Member Peter Teitelbaum has suggested carving off a small portion of the property for development to pay for the purchase.
How would the town pay for the final $600,000 of the total $2.6 million cost?
The Community Preservation funds can only be used for the purchase of the land. Of the remaining $600,000 the town is asking voters to approve, $300,000 will go to the current owners of the Little Harbor Country Club to pay for the purchase of the clubhouse and equipment, including golf carts. The remaining $300,000 would cover other costs related to the purchase, including a fee related to the conservation restriction, a new septic system and a survey of the property. The town could use its free cash or bonds to fund the last $600,000 of the purchase.
Who would run the golf course?
The town would not be in charge of the day-to-day operation of the course, officials have repeatedly said. If the town purchases the land and course, it will issue a request for proposals for a management company to run the course. The typical contract for such a company is structured so that the management company is the one taking on financial risk, Whiteside has explained. The company would have a set yearly fee. The course’s profits — or losses — up to that point would be the company’s. Revenue beyond that set fee would be split between the company and the town at a to-be-agreed-upon ratio, Whiteside said.
Whiteside said that as of Feb. 14, two management companies had reached out to the town to express their interest in running the course.
How much will operating the course cost the town?
The town would only be directly responsible for the capital costs associated with the course, such as replacing golf carts or upgrading the club house. Town officials plan to establish an enterprise fund that would collect the town’s share of the course’s profits and keep those funds in reserve to cover capital costs.
Is the golf course profitable?
Only limited information about the course’s finances has been made public. Officials have said the owners have told them the course continues to be profitable despite limited advertising or promotion. The number of rounds of golf played at the course has increased significantly in recent years, from 14,907 in 2018 to 22,921 in 2021. Between 2005 and 2020, Little Harbor had an average annual net income of $32,394.
Will this impact Little Harbor Beach?
No. Little Harbor Beach is a separate town property that will continue to be operated as a residents-only beach, regardless of whether or not the town buys the golf course.